Heartbeat of Hong Kong

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Heartbeat of Hong Kong
Quicken your steps to keep up with the pace of Hong Kong, where ancient and modern cultures coexist. Look up for modern skyscrapers, down for South China Sea mystique, and all around for classic traditions and the quirky quotidian.

By Emily Chu, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Aimee Bruederle
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    Honoring Tradition
    Hanging incense coils, scattered joss paper offerings, and venerable golden statues are a common tableau in Hong Kong's abundant temples. At the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island, commune with Buddhist practice through tours of the tranquil gardens and a climb to the base of the magnificent bronze Tian Tan Buddha. Tucked in the shadows of hulking apartment towers on busy Hollywood Road, the 19th-century Man Mo temple is Hong Kong’s oldest. Meanwhile, the Wan Chai Heritage Trail is a self-guided two-mile tour of 15 historic buildings in one of Hong Kong Island’s oldest settlements: See 19th-century Chinese shophouses and temples as well as art deco–era buildings.
    Photo by Aimee Bruederle
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    The Hong Kong Story
    Hong Kong's well-curated museums make learning history an active experience rather than a tedious task. Travel to the New Territories to view the collection of relics and art at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Highlights range from bamboo carvings and lacquerware to an extravagant showcase on the Hong Kong–born kung fu icon Bruce Lee. The Hong Kong Maritime Museum tells the story of Hong Kong as one of the world’s most important ports. Learn about its importance from ship models, nautical paintings, old photos, and exhibits on sea bandits and the development of Victoria Harbour. The Victorian-era 1881 Heritage complex may today house high-end shopping and dining outlets, but it served as the headquarters of the Hong Kong Marine Police from the 1880s until 1996. The site’s beautifully restored Time Ball Tower used to be raised manually each day and dropped precisely at 1 p.m. so that the ships in the harbor could recalibrate their clocks before setting sail.
    Photo by Emily Chu
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    Peaks, Waves, and a Dragon's Back
    Beyond Hong Kong's glitter and glamour are quiet hikes and escapes from the urban buzz. Allow three hours to hike from Victoria Peak—Hong Kong's highest point—to the Pok Fu Lam Reservoir. Pause first at the Lugard Road lookout for stunning views over Victoria Harbour, then pass a World War II battery before following a woodland path into the forest of the reservoir. Another popular walking choice is the Dragon’s Back trail, which rolls over multiple peaks and valleys and ends near the Big Wave Bay beach—an especially pleasant destination for those hiking in the humid Hong Kong summertime. The whole thing should take about four to five hours, so bring plenty of water and snacks, as there are no designated rest points along the way.
    Photo by Jessica Lymberopoulos
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    A Market for Every Need
    Fortitude and savvy pay off on trips to Hong Kong's swarming markets and shopping hubs. Stanley Market is an institution; its narrow lanes are packed with Chinese and Southeast Asian knickknacks, cheap clothes, watches, backpacks, purses, and lots more. Likewise, the hundreds of stalls in Hong Kong's Jade Market are jammed with jade pendants, bangles, earrings, and loose stones. Shop for good-luck charms based on the year you were born and the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Pick up something you like, but unless you’re an expert, think twice about buying an expensive piece of jade jewelry here. Hong Kong’s former Police Married Quarters has been transformed from 1950s housing to the PMQ complex—where young couples used to live, you'll now find quirky independent designers, workshops, and hip pop-up boutiques selling everything from handcrafted shoes to clothes, jewelry, and furniture.
    Photo courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourism Board
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    Gardens and Parks
    Hong Kong's most well-known and largest oasis of green, Victoria Park, is the site of important holiday festivals as well as seasonal markets and celebrations. Its sports facilities include tennis courts, soccer pitches, and a swimming pool. At Tolo Harbour, you can gain some distance from the hubbub and climb a tower at the Tai Po Waterfront Park for some perspective. Over in Kowloon, a small fortress built on a strategic beachhead in the early 19th century eventually grew into a vital maritime defense for China; today it's become Kowloon Walled City Park, a relaxing green Chinese-style park showcasing a few surviving sections of the fortress.
    Photo courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourism Board
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    Secret Getaways
    As bustling and packed with apartment and office towers as Hong Kong is, there are patches of green and slivers of beach that feel a million miles away. Nan Lian Garden on Diamond Hill in Kowloon is a traditional Tang Dynasty–style landscaped Chinese garden, with winding paths leading past pines, cypress, and fragrant flowering trees. Its artificial hillocks, ornamental rocks, waterfalls, and koi ponds encourage quiet walks and reflection. On Lantau Island, Discovery Bay harbors a mini valley of boulders, waterfalls, and natural pools of water that make it a popular destination on hot days.
    Photo courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourism Board
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    Hong Kong's energy extends well into the night. Weeknights are often as busy as weekends, especially in Lan Kwai Fong, the city’s party district, and in haunts in Wan Chai, Central, and inside the bars and clubs of the city's hotel towers. Café Gray Bar atop the Upper House hotel wows customers with its views and its spectacular long, white marble bar. Dr. Fern’s Gin Parlour is pure kitsch, serving elaborate and delicious gin concoctions that the fictional doctor claims will cure customers’ woes and ailments. In a setting reminiscent of an upscale opium den, exotic Ophelia employs the rich plumage and colors of the peacock as the decorative backdrop for risqué cabaret acts.
    Photo by Karl Johaentges/age fotostock
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    The Journey, Not the Destination
    Buses, taxis, subways, and trains are the staples of most big cities' public transportation. Futuristic Hong Kong improves on this model with its efficient infrastructure and its appreciation for fine views. If you aren't in a rush, the beloved Star Ferry will take you across Victoria Harbour cheaply and spectacularly, and a ride on a local sampan can also give you a great view of the harbor. Or hop on a tram (affectionately known as a "ding ding") for an impromptu city tour. For an even more unusual mode of transport, board the Central–Mid-Levels Escalator, the world's longest covered outdoor escalator system. It rolls from Central through Soho and finally arrives at the Mid-Levels, where you can hop onto the Peak Tram to get to the top of Victoria Peak.
    Photo courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourism Board
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    Architectural Marvels
    The instant you arrive in Hong Kong you are introduced to one of its major architectural achievements: The airport is regularly recognized as one of the world's finest. And the design superlatives continue within the city itself. The Tsing Ma Bridge, connecting Lantau Island to the rest of Hong Kong, is one of the largest suspension bridges on earth. Skyscrapers—like the International Commerce Centre and I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower—define the skyline, and the rebuilt HSBC headquarters building makes a particularly mighty contribution. When your neck gets sore from looking up, turn your attention to the harbor's edge to take in the sustainably focused Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, the design of which represents a bird in flight.
    Photo courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourism Board
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